It’s a chilly, rain-slick evening soon after Valentine’s Day, and members of the AtticRep Theatre Ensemble have gathered in a small conference room in the Ruth Taylor Fine Arts Center on Trinity’s campus to talk marriage. Specifically, they’re out to devise the AtticRep Forum Theatre Project 2010: On Love and Marriage, the latest in an annual series of experimental performances. The AtticRep Forum synthesizes improvisational theatre, social commentary, emotional and ethical issues, and dialogue across ideological divides into an open-ended, highly kinetic performance. Previous AtticRep Forums addressed homelessness, borders and immigration, teenage pregnancy, and domestic violence.
“Now all we need to do,” Rick Frederick muses, “is to convince this damn camera to get on board, here.”
Once the multimedia portion of the Forum Ensemble meeting gets rolling, we watch an interview of a young man and woman (brother and sister, it turns out) outside the Farmer’s Market at the Pearl Brewery, talking about the issues at hand — they’re asked about their own relationships, what constitutes marriage, whether government and /or religion have a role in determining who has the right to marry.
“Amazing, how open they were willing to be in front of the camera,” Frederick says.
It’s compelling stuff, too, watching people work out their feelings; the sister’s bohemian, talkative, and professedly progressive, a staunch supporter of legal same-sex marriage. Her brother, while sympathetic and thoughtful on the subject of couples formalizing their unions, cites “religious reasons” in declining to support a change in the law.
We also watch an alarming video in which an apoplectic, sign-bearing lady straight out of central casting for the Westboro Baptist (aka “God hates fags”) fringe movement, hollers “God’s gonna kick yer ass straight into Hell!” at a Pride parade. The ensemble jokingly considers including a crazed, hollering homophobe character in a sketch, but decides instead to portray the spectrum of orientations and attitudes respectfully.
Love and marriage as a conceptual basis for public dialogue is already a pretty loaded topic for Frederick, director of this particular Forum Project; last June, he married his longtime partner, artist Chris Sauter, in a community-based wedding (though not a legally binding one, in the state of Texas; see “State of the Union,” June 2, 2009). However, Frederick and his ensemble of volunteers — which include local actors, artists, and a number of Trinity staff and students — are determined to respect the entire spectrum, from homo to homophobic, as part of the action; the idea is to create dialogue, not necessarily consensus. Thus the ensemble has taken on an enormous amount of first-hand interview recordings and other forms of research, such as writings both Biblical and legal defining marriage, and are using the assembled info as backstory to the upcoming live-action sketches. In each of these scenes, performers depict characters who reach a point of conflict over the issue of imperfect unions; I imagine lovers quarrels, comings-out, political arguments, family rifts. Each sketch will be performed twice; during the second “verse,” (my term) audience members are encouraged to join the scene in order to defuse, intensify, complicate, or protest the conflict; in short, to effect change, both dramaturgically and, maybe, in the real world.
The Forum’s approach is based in part on “The Theatre of the Oppressed,” a technique developd by Brazilian actor and activist Augusto Boal in the 1960s and introduced to the AtticRep company by Artistic Director Roberto Prestigiacomo in 2006. Boal’s experiment sought to depict scenes in which one character (a peasant farmer, for example) suffered oppression by another (a landowner, say). Spect-actors would then replace the original actors and, well, take back the night.
And this is gonna happen, for real? People do step in?
“They have in the past, yes,” Frederick tells me.
Is it particularly risky to open the Forum up to the throngs at Luminaria?
“We’ll see,” he says.
I aim to find out. The AtticRep Forum 2010 presents audacious, potentially nerve-wracking, ambivalent territory, and the standard criteria of artistic merit just may not fit into the picture (What denotes success? A kiss? An averted fistfight?). Audiences may prove reticent, or scornful, or belligerent. There’s room for apathy or poetry, depending to a large degree — terrifyingly — on us. •